Postdoc Spotlight: Vladimir Hamed-Troyansky

Friday, June 28, 2019

Vladimir Hamed-Troyansky is a postdoctoral research fellow working on a book project, “An Empire of Refugees: North Caucasian Muslims in the Ottoman Empire, 1860–1914,” about the resettlement of Muslim refugees from Russia in the Ottoman domains. 

Hamed-Troyansky specializes in the Ottoman Levant, Balkans, and Anatolia, as well as the greater Caucasus prior to World War I. He received a Ph.D. in Modern Middle Eastern History from Stanford University in 2018. He won the 2018 World History Association Dissertation Prize, annually awarded for the best doctoral dissertation in world, global, or transnational history. This fall he will start as an assistant professor in Middle Eastern history at Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina. 

I interviewed Vladimir at the Harriman Institute on April 18, 2019. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

—Masha Udensiva-Brenner

How did you become interested in the resettlement of Muslim refugees from Russia to the Ottoman Empire?

As an undergraduate student, I studied Arabic in Syria and, while living in Damascus, I met many people from the Circassian diaspora—descendants of refugees from the Russian Empire. Many still spoke Circassian and maintained their traditions. Their stories captivated me. I have always been interested in migration and the notions of citizenship and belonging. Since college, I’ve been enamored with the Caucasus and the Balkans, located on what used to be the Ottoman-Russian border. When time came to choose my dissertation topic, the idea of working on Muslim refugees from Russia who had resettled throughout the Ottoman Empire came naturally. 

What most surprised you while conducting your research?

While working with Ottoman records in Turkey, Jordan, and Bulgaria, what surprised me was how integral Muslim refugees from Russia were to the functioning of the late Ottoman state. Demographically speaking, in some regions North Caucasians formed a plurality of the population, but it went beyond the population count. The Ottomans drafted North Caucasian elites in their officer corps and made use of lower-status immigrants in their police force and auxiliary troops. The government strategically settled many refugees in places where it could rely on their fighting capabilities or labor. In a way, refugees became critical to the economic survival of the empire.

How did they become critical?

One of my case studies is the region of Transjordan, now known as Jordan. I found that the settlement of Circassian and Chechen refugees there led to the entrenchment of the new Ottoman land code, which the government tried to promote throughout the empire. Refugees facilitated Ottoman economic reforms by registering land and trading land usage rights according to the new Ottoman land code, thus prompting their neighbors to do the same.

What also surprised me was that outcomes of refugee resettlement varied vastly in different regions. In some places, such as Transjordan, refugees were very successful in establishing thriving agricultural villages. One Circassian refugee village, Amman, became a boom town by the early 20thcentury and was eventually chosen as the capital city of Jordan. But refugee villages across the Balkans and Anatolia were economically unsuccessful. Land was often infertile, and few refugees had enough cattle or tools to work the land. Refugees died of famine or epidemics; many abandoned their land and moved elsewhere; some turned to highway robbery and plunder. For many refugees, expulsion from the Caucasus and a devastating journey to the Ottoman Empire, ended with years of hunger and a precarious existence.

Why were refugees in Amman successful?

There are two main reasons. First, state infrastructure. In the early 20thcentury, the Ottomans built the Hejaz Railway to facilitate pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina. The railway went through Amman, where it created jobs, attracted outside investment, and opened up new markets for local agricultural produce. Second, refugees’ relations with their neighbors. In Transjordan, North Caucasians managed to navigate complex local Bedouin politics skillfully enough to guarantee the early success of their settlements.

What lessons can we draw from the Ottoman Empire’s experience with refugees?

I’d say two lessons. One—refugees, upon becoming immigrants, can truly reinvigorate host economies. Examples are numerous. Look at America’s largest cities! Refugees need to be given a chance. This brings me to the second lesson: state involvement and support for refugees is absolutely critical. The state needs to invest in refugee resettlement and welfare programs to ensure a good start for vulnerable populations. Earmarked resources, relevant legislation, willing and competent local officials, coordination among various state agencies and, if relevant, non-governmental organizations are all important here.  

Tell me about your research in Russia and Georgia.

In Russia, I worked in the archives in Moscow, Nalchik, Vladikavkaz, and Makhachkala. I found amazing documents in the archives of the North Caucasian republics, as well as in Georgia; namely, petitions from North Caucasian Muslims who wanted to emigrate from Russia to the Ottoman Empire and from North Caucasians in the Ottoman Empire who wanted to return to Russia. This is an untold story of this migration—that many Muslims desperately wanted to return to the Caucasus. It was impossible for most of them because both empires were happy with the status quo and sought to prevent return migration. The Ottomans restricted the North Caucasians’ ability to leave their allotted land plots and the Russians effectively banned Muslim re-immigration in the Caucasus. Yet many Chechens, Kabardians, Ossetians, and Abkhazians risked their lives crossing the mountainous Ottoman-Russian border—without documents—and, as I found out, tens of thousands succeeded and started new lives in their old homeland.

What’s your favorite aspect of being at the Harriman?

Being in a community of scholars working on various aspects of Eurasian history and politics. The intellectual vibrancy all around. It’s a real privilege to be able to go to screenings of Central Asian films, talks on the Caucasus, and a conference on Russian-Chinese relations, all within a couple of days of one another. The Harriman Institute, and Columbia in general, has the power to attract phenomenal guest speakers practically on a daily basis.

What are you teaching this semester?

An advanced undergraduate and graduate seminar on displacement in the Middle East and Eastern Europe. This course looks at the history of ethnic cleansing and refugee migration in two regions that are rarely studied together. We’re juxtaposing several fascinating historiographies—Ottoman/modern Middle Eastern and Russian imperial/Soviet—to trace the evolution of practices and ideologies of displacement across Eurasia.

What’s your advice to students considering a doctorate in history?

Being a historian—discovering forgotten voices, sharing people’s stories with the world, crafting a narrative of events that unfolded haphazardly over time, teaching new generations of students—is a joy and a privilege. The reality of the academic job market, at least for the time being, is that few doctoral graduates will have the chance to be in a tenure-track position. Therefore, first, I would advise every potential applicant to have a clear idea why they wish to pursue a doctorate in history. Where do you hope to be in ten years, and what is your red line? 

Second, do extensive research on doctoral programs of interest. Not only about academic expertise and funding, but also what it is like to be there. Ask current graduate students about their work-life balance, the hidden costs of living in the University city or town, their relationship with their advisor, and about the departmental politics at the institution. And, finally, get an early start on building non-academic support networks, take up new hobbies, read fiction! You will spend so many years carefully crafting your academic persona; do not forget about working on and cherishing your non-academic self.


To read more about our postdocs visit Postdoc Spotlight